Economic-Development Zone Bike Tour

We have been living in Huadong, a suburb of Qingdao on the bay letting out to the sea –officially an “economic development zone.” I’ve been all over China and have never seen this many skyscraper apartments going up. Mile after mile, some super-fancy with the German-esque follies/details (red rooves, cottage brown stripes) that reference Qingdao’s German colonial past. It’s also home (slightly inland) to massive factory after factory campus, including Haier, which I think makes large appliances like air conditioners.

“Development” means factories, in my students’ argot. Development in my lingo means things like health, education, as well as infrastructure. Here it really doesn’t have that overtone of human development.

SO we took an economic development zone bike tour along the coast, where landscaping of flowering trees, promenades(including a “movie star walk of fame) and exercise machines stretch for miles. s the zone hasn’t finished developing — the buildings are mostly empty, my university only opened this campus a couple of years ago — it’s totally empty. On the horizon are ships and factory stacks. And along the coast,  clammers and fishermen with nets.

fisherman boatsclammers in the smog

God forbid eating shellfish here; sorry, Qingdao. It goes on and on; we’re not the fastest riders but not slow either and this is two hours’ riding  — it just doesn’t stop.

Here’s what it looks like.

Kenny on Huangdao Promenade

Kenny on Huangdao Promenade

mod swervy buildings

keny and buildings

Rent-a-tandem (we didn't)

Rent-a-tandem (we didn’t)

weird red landscaping

Doctor of Tropical Medicine

Gratuitous sunrise shot: Early drive to Manhattan

China isn’t (mostly) tropical. But we suspect maybe one kid picked up a so-called ‘tropical’ disease there.

Today we left before dawn to see Kevin M. Cahill, M.D., author of Tropical Medicine, a textbook now in its 8th edition from Oxford University Press. One kid’s gut problems have lasted 7 months (since visiting the Tibetan yak herders in W. Sichuan), plus, lately, terrible headaches and dizziness. All the pediatricians, gastroenterologists, lab tests (soon he’s also to see a pediatric neurologist) said head and stomach pains were UNrelated. That seems odd. And they said no, it wasn’t infectious, from China.That also seemed, maybe…wrong.

Food- and water-borne diseases are bad in China, still, including in cities. The other child got giardia (a parasite) there, with timing suggesting he picked it up in Beijing. Docs told us they see it constantly. (Along with the better-known Traveler’s Diarrhea, a bacteria.) Parasites are, for one, in the water. No one drinks the water, & we brushed our teeth with bottled water. Still, water comes into contact with things you eat.

Dr. Cahill is the U.N.’s chief advisor on medicine in humanitarian crises, and has written or edited about 10 books on tropical medicine. He is renowned for his parasite knowledge. He’s said to shun commercial labs and to examine specimens under his own microscope. One reference he showed us notes that a study (NYC, 2010) found 70% of parasite and amoeba test results at commercial labs were faulty.

Just an antique: Dr. Cahill sharing his 18-th century acupuncture kit.

Why were our docs so sure, why didn’t they suggest seeing a tropical medicine specialist (I note with gratitude that my friend Aviva did)? Dr. Cahill said medical schools here spend no time on tropical diseases. Well, why? Unlike the U.K., he said, this country never occupied conquered colonies. Aside from the odd adventure traveler, Peace Corps volunteer, or U.N. official, there’s no call for tropical medicine in the U.S. — among the elite. And there just isn’t much concern for the (mostly poor) immigrants who suffer from these things.

When budget cuts come to NYC hospitals, as he put it, “what gets cut are the things the Dominicans get.”

Dr. Cahill’s souvenir acupuncture kit, a gift from a patient.

He also told us (before doing a sigmoidoscopy, sampling the intestinal wall) the stool tests our doctors rely on won’t show parasites or amoebas because the creatures live inside the intestine walls — not in stool.

Dr. Cahill thought a parasite might be the cause of things. We’ll find out tomorrow for sure. I desperately hope so, because this child is suffering.

Heartfelt thanks to friend Eric Pearl, & Cousin Liz, who recommended Dr. Cahill.

PS – Thank you, our 33 new subscribers this week! That’s so lovely to have you. If anyone else wants to get notified by email when we post, click “Sign me up” on the right.

Post Script: The great Dr. Cahill found an amoeba, E.Histolytica, the thing that causes amoebic dysentery (among other symptoms). The illness is called amebiasis and is said to affect 50 millionin the world, especially where it’s poor, crowded and hygiene is not good.  With 2 meds and some time to heal, we believe he’ll be on the mend. And I’d like to take this opportunity to again “thank” the pediatric G.I. we saw repeatedly who insisted there was no reason to believe the cause of this kid’s suffering was tropical or infectious.

Revealing Student Journalism

Final papers, read aloud over pizza, for appreciation, not critique. “Spoken-word performance”-style, over 4 hours with food & drink (my normal U.S. seminar length, unheard of here). Some students needed help projecting their voices. Great work again, some ‘Reporter’s Journey’-type experience stories, and interrogations/explorations of trends and youth countercultures that reveal some of the fissures in China today.

Betty lived in tight quarters for a story

A graduate degree from a top Beijing university won’t get you your own flat. Betty’s final showed life in bunkbeds, 7 to a small apartment (1 bathroom) after grad school.

Li Xueman explored troubling junkets for journalism students

Alina’s story shows Christianity’s pull for youths, being spread by Korean missionaries at “house churches” with singing and guitar, and cozy potluck dinners. Other hot trends: becoming a body guard at Israeli-run training camps; hating doctors (doctors have begun to bear the brunt of patients’ anger at a sick healthcare system–some doctors have even been violently attacked in hospitals). Another Israeli motif came up in Lei Hou’s story on the chutzpah of an instructor who’s brought Krav Maga, a technique born in an Eastern European Jewish ghetto, to china, home of martial arts. China maybe didn’t need another martial art! But Krav Maga is simpler, quick to learn, effective, and requires no meditation.

Patients are venting anger on doctors, already hard pressed by the same troubled system, Tracy writes.

One student went in search of where her e-waste goes. But a neighborhood once was home to recyclers (peddlers whose kids climbed on old electronics leaking poison) is gone…Is e-waste is down thanks to buy-back programs? It’s not clear.

Wang Fei looks at the allure of becoming a mogul’s body guard

A piece on MayDay, the Taiwanese pop sensation with 10 million online fans, shows how even after 2 decades, they’re still inspiring China’s young people with ballads about “nobodies who overcome obstacles.”
And one student describes a series of luxurious junkets she took, organized by the Propaganda Ministry for j-school students. It’s a clear-eyed look inside a media system where “only the rich and powerful have a say.” She concludes: “This will cripple our nation.”

Yellow River of Sorrows

Lanzhou

Earlier spring, we were in Lanzhou, out West, Gansu province, upper reaches of the Yellow River–China’s second longest, after the Yangtze. It is, I read, China’s river of sorrow, for its history of horrific floods, some of history’s deadliest natural disasters.

Taoist fortunetellers, Lanzhou

In a 50-year period between 1887 and 1931, Yellow River floods killed an estimated seven million people, including in epidemics that followed.

Lanzhou’s famous beef noodles

Notoriously, during the second Sino-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists created a man-made Yellow River flood (not here but to the east) to halt the enemy advance, killing perhaps a million Chinese people and no one knows how many Japanese soldiers.

Lanzhou

The floods’ cause (in part) is in the name: the “yellow” is silt, from a fine, easily eroding rock (loess) that collects and raises the river till it spills over. (Loess is finer than sand, carried by wind, mostly quartz, highly subject to erosion.) We called that beige stuff “Gobi sand” and it got in our eyes, packed into our ears, and had to be dumped out of pockets and bags for days. OK, it was sandstorm season. But never have I seen a dustier place than Lanzhou. Not inches of dust, but piles a foot high in the dustpan after people swept. Mounds collecting indoors in room corners, outdoors against buildings, streets.

Lanzhou: Muslim community

The river’s not so “yellow”– more brown. Industrial waste has rendered it (source: UN) unfit for drinking and also for agricultural and even for industrial use.

These inflated sheep carcasses keep afloat rafts that locals and visitors hire (with a driver) for fun, to float along the Yellow’s filthy length. We did not partake. It made me sick to look at them.

This blog has attracted a VERY nice American follower who lives in Langzhou and I apologize, Dave, but in spite of the cool provincial museum (home to the famous, iconic bronze horse, one of the best archaeological treasures, almost thrown into a smelter during the Cultural Revolution), the awesome hand-uplled beef noodles(flavored with cinnamon & star anise as well as ginger and cilantro) and several active temples & mosques, I do not hope to return to Lanzhou.

Old Street, Lanzhou

And the Yellow River, past and present, made me sad.

Mosque-on-a-boat? Yellow River

Beijing, Destroyed

Beijing Central Busn. District


In the aftermath of Xi’s visit to the U.S., some thoughts on China–trying to understand its exercise of power, self-reinvention through destruction … the meaning of all this new-ness all around in this rising superpower. From my vantage point in Beijing, on my 6-month anniversary here.

Take the Marais, the Latin Quarter, Montmartre in Paris, so many parts of London, Rome, NY’s W. Village or the Meatpacking District, Copenhagen’s Medieval quarter — great cities, alive, conjuring a sense, an experience, of history. You walk it, see it, feel it. Same with the Middle East’s walled medinas — Jerusalem and Cairo, Aleppo and Damascus, Fez and Marrakesh.

Old City Wall of Fez, Morocco

Not so Beijing.

You’ll look hard to find China’s ancient majesty. It’s tucked away, almost an amusement park. Beijing has cool new buildings (the Olympics’ Bird’s Nest and Water Cube; CCTV “Big Underpants”) but what most characterizes Beijing is…miles and miles of already-cracking nondescript newness. Ugly flyovers across 8-lane mid-city highways. It seems contradictory yet Beijing is overpopulated yet barren. Beijing, despite China’s amazing excitement and energy, the humor and art, vitality, great food, is largely depressing if you love cities. Just try to find a pedestrian route through this seemingly improvised sprawl.

“Beijing is defined by congestion, lack of public spaces, discontinuous neighborhoods,” writes Michael Meyer, author of the excellent The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed (2008). Which this post is all about.

Beijing from the Jing Guang Bldg

Meyers explains why it’s so bad, while chronicling the razing of Beijing’s few, precious, surviving old neighborhood alleys (or hutong). (It must be said that original hutong homes have no plumbing; residents use public bathrooms. I don’t ever idealize that kind of poverty and hardship. They needed to be renovated–not demolished.)

Chinese for "Destroy," painted by authorities


Why has Beijing been destroyed? Meyer’s research found, for starters, there was (& remains) comparatively little professional capacity, relative to the need: No Chinese architecture department until about 1930. “Building” long considered a lowly trade. Few decision-makers even now understand preservation, sustainable development and planning (re: resource use — god let’s hope that’s changing fast), nor architectural heritage. Some important advocates raised loud voices here; big-name Western foundations offered expertise, to no avail. Or too little, too late. China, built of wood, rotted away.

From Meyer. Why Old Beijing was destroyed:


1. It reminded people of feudalism, which they hated.

European architecture carries you to different eras. (A cathedral is “a portal back to a specific time and its politics, arts, ethics, economy.”) In China, materials and design remained largely unchanged for 2,000 years. It’s all about one hated period: feudalism.


2. The city had a celestial function. Once obsolete, no reason to save it.

Beijing for millennia had a cosmic raison d’etre. “European cities grew organically [around] food production, transportation, and governance.” Not so Chinese cities, Meyer explains. Planned from scratch as administrative centers, great cities simply were home to a high-ranking official. A capital “existed as a medium for the emperor to communicate with the universe through rites, balancing the harmony between the celestial and the earthly.” Harmonizing yin and yang forces, feng shui, the Earth’s five elements. Confucian hierarchy, Taoist balance, determined layout and location. When beliefs died, there was no reason to save the infrastructure, preserve the history, salvage the urban grid or revisit traditional design.

Old Beijing



3. A century (the 20th) of self-hating envy of the West

In the early 1900s, many Chinese studied in America (including Sun Yat-Sen’s son, Sun Ke, who went to UCLA and Columbia) and came home to modernize the southern port, Guangzhou (Canton), with deputies likewise trained in America, “where the nation’s wide, paved roads designed for cars made a lasting impression. On their return, they ordered the pulling down of Guangzhou’s 800-year-old wall…[even as Canadian and American architects] urged an adaptive architecture [melding] modern engineering with traditional Chinese building traits.”

Chaoyang, Beijing (CCTV Bldg)



4. Embarrassment at China’s poverty.

Rich Americans seek out high-priced old Amish barn siding: it’s a precious decorative accent. Here old wood = slum. “You must understand the terrible inferiority complex that comes with poverty. The only desire is to look modern.”

CCTV Building, "Big Underpants"



5. Successive Chinese empires wiped out what they conquered.

The tradition of razing goes back to the emperors. Conquer-and-raze was a millenia-old tradition.

Wall remnant; Beijing


6. War


7. The Cultural Revolution


Of course. “Destroy the old world; Forge the new world.” Along with torture, murder, and public humiliation, Red Guards vandalized or burned down an astonishingly large fraction of China’s heritage. Many temples have been (are being) rebuilt and restored. I lack data but they’re a small bit of what was lost. We look hard to find and visit them, as do many Chinese tourists and pilgrims.


8. Communist (sometimes Soviet) ideology.

Beijing had two rings of walls: the inner surrounding the imperial palace, the outer around the city. A 1953 city government declaration said the Old City walls “serve feudalism and the imperial era.” Soon the outer was gone. (A crusading architect at the time, Liang Sicheng, said it felt “like having my skin torn off my bones.” He was in the papers this week when his own home was razed, despite its status as “an irreplaceable cultural relic.” [See under: “Rule of Law, problems with”.])

Beijing City Wall Museum

In 1953, under the CCP slogan, “Learn everything from the Soviet Union” a cadre declared (per Meyer), “The major danger is an extreme respect for old architecture.” So went not just wall but gate towers, ceremonial arches. He quotes a People’s Daily (CCP party organ) editorial of 1957: “The people all want to use their hands to destroy! You destroy a gray brick, I’ll pull down a piece of stone. Citizens of every district help pull down the wall.” Today, instead of gates, gargantuan intersections. Meyer found that Soviet advisers actually urged preservation of parts of the wall, to no avail.

A few years ago, about a kilometer was reconstructed — between a highway and a housing block.

Beijing City Wall remnant


9. ‘Urban renewal’ (quote-unquote) — hastened by the Olympics.

With Beijing’s Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, “Neighborhoods that had survived the fall of imperial rule, the Republican era’s modernizations, Japanese occupation, and Mao’s industrialization fell to a faceless foe. The Hand moved through the hutong after dark, surreptitiously marking courtyard homes ‘Destroy.’ ”

A typical hutong (alley)


10. And why does it happens so fast? Party politics. Bureaucrats’ ambition..

Meyer explains: “Rapid clear-cutting [is] the preferred method over selective thinning of buildings. “It’s about time… Speed. For the officials in charge, the faster they demolish old structures and begin new projects, the faster they can declare to those above them, ‘Look what I’ve accomplished.’ There are no paths to career advancement for ‘Look what I saved.’ ”

Consumerism in mod malls, says a famous, gifted Chinese architect (hutong-raised, trained at Berkeley, who hated the dead suburbs he saw in America, and now is head of architecture at MIT) — isn’t just a priority. Newness, consuming, is a way of life. Not of the opiate, brainwashing, shallow sort. Though it may devour 7 earths (that don’t exist), Chinese postmodern self-expression through consumerism is about choice where none existed before. It’s about experiencing freedom, exploring a new world. Life for once as a series of open possibilities.

The world’s robust new superpower, embodied in Beijing destroyed, is managing its own fate.

Another City, Old & New (Xiamen)

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China, Building…

Highway over farms


Our weeks of ‘ethnic-‘ or ‘eco-‘ tourism have me thinking about China’s build-out. Beyond our treasure hunts for un-razed old Beijing, I mean something much bigger. We seem to exclusively pursue the preciously pre-industrial. As if that’s all “Chinese” means–in a human sense, and re: the built environment.

Ethan spit a phrase back at me during our 2 weeks in Yunnan and Guanxi (provinces bordering Vietnam and Burma), a wake-up to how much we chase the quaintly scenic, the un-“spoiled.” In China, the building is happening so fast and all at once, I think it’s part of the knee-jerk anti-China senftiment prevalent now. I think the build-out scares Americans far more than our own (slower, older) devastation of nature.

One day, on mountain bikes, after a long hard climb escaping Lijiang’s city limits, on reaching dirt paths around Lashi Lake–and even there, after crossing giant highway construction–we reached peace, lake, horses, corn fields, big birds (could it be the rare white-necked Tibetan crane?!?).

And Ethan asked, “Are we off the beaten track now?”

Lashi Lake, near LIjiang

Mr. Livingstone, I presume?

Bai village family


I think many Chinese tourists regard, and experience, ethnic minority areas the way many Americans do the Amish. We wrap our fears about modernity, our sense of loss and helplessness, up in a sort of ‘love’ for their ‘natural,’ ‘noble savagery.’ I don’t mean to insult. These narratives are bigger than we are, unconscious.

China is building, everywhere. Yet until now we have hardly posted pictures of this. Our photos are, to some extent, lies. Wish fulfillment. (Fear, idealization, ‘love,’ big narratives, as above.)

Zongdian (Shangri-La) Yak Crossing

In Ariel Dorfman & Armand Mattelart’s classic How to Read Donald Duck , two Chilean radicals’ scathing, landmark 1971 booklet (now a collectors’ item) on imperial relations, framed as an attack on Disney comics, it’s a bullseye when they describe “the historical nostalgia of the bourgeoisie…[for] lost paradise”:

“A Wigwam Motel and a souvenir shop are opened, excursions are arranged. The Indians are immobilized against their national background and served up for tourist consumption. …Stereotypes become a channel of distorted knowledge. …[The] principle [is] … sensationalism, which conceals reality by means of novelty, which not incidentally, also serves to promote sales…”

Corn dries, Baisha restaurant.

So here we are ‘consuming’ China–not ours, actually, but someone else’s empire. Ostensibly looking for “reality,” “authenticity,” yet taking so few pictures of the changes underway, the infrastructure rising everywhere. Favoring instead quaint (powerless minorities), color, sensation.

Overpasses cross lakes and soar above villages. Towering dams cement cliffsides. Massive bridges span the Yangtze and tunnels bore through (near Lijiang in Yunnan) mountains. (Same deal in Western Sichuan, now sealed off due to more Tibetan self-immolations and unrest).

In one minority area we visited, near Dali, a fresh village mural educated people about electrification (how not to get electrocuted).

Near Dali, electrification mural

The building is part Keynesian stimulation, keeping the economy percolating (so we read) to avoid a slowdown that could provoke big social unrest. (Vs. the ‘small’ and medium-sized unrest, already occurring, involving hundreds rather than, say, millions.)

Ganden Sumtseling, Shangri-La, Yunnan

Maybe it looked like this in the Eisenhower era when America built out infrastructure.

Elevated highway construction, Yunnan

Kids can study at night in electrified homes. Educated kids won’t need to wade knee-deep all day in cold rice paddies. At that level there’s no righteousness in chasing the “lost paradise.” Hats off to China’s retiring technocratic generation, soon to be replaced.

Yet. What if the build-out is truly ill-conceived? If Party leaders (central and provincial) are so close to the elites who run the state-owned conglomerates, they’ve got hands in eachother’s pockets. If the governing elite simply hired the enterprise-running elite — the state owns the biggest engineering firms, cement manufacturers, transport and energy conglomerates. If they’re investing the nation’s wealth not in education or healthcare, but roads to nowhere, tunnels through mountains, out of nepotism, favoritism, intra-elite self-dealing?

Shangri La Tibetan women

If ethnic tourism is inherently suspect, so is the despoilation we ecotourists are trying to escape, if it’s without checks or balances. So is one-party rule without media watchdogs. All sides of the equation are troubling.

Dr. Ho, David’s Qi, and Ezra Pound

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, 15,000'


Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (15,000′) is holy to the Naxi (“nashi”) people, whose priest lives up there, with a tourist chairlift. The Naxi, a matriarchal Chinese minority related to Tibetans, traditionally worship the spirits of rocks, rivers, and especially this mountain, which grows some 500 healing herbs, many unknown elsewhere (also: 300 different rhododendrons).

In this botanical wonderland east of the Himalayas, in China’s southwest Yunnan province, David had a consultation with the famous village healer, Dr. Ho, a figure of great cross-cultural interest. “I was raised by Christian missionaries,” Ho told the Daily Telegraph, (in one of many news stories). “But there were many other religions, too – Muslim, Buddhism, Confucianism and Naxi.”

Tibetan monastery near Baisha, Lijiang

In 1986, Bruce Chatwin wrote a travel piece in the Times which made Ho, and his clinic in Baisha, a tiny mountain village at 8,000′, something of an international legend. Chatwin was fascinated (as we were, as everyone would be) with the Naxi: “Their religion is a combination of Tibetan Lamaism, Chinese Taoism and a far, far older shamanistic belief: in the spirits of cloud and wind and pine,” Chatwin wrote.

Shamanism didn’t go over well with the Red Guards. Ho lost everything (but his herbal–a 19th-century edition of The Book of Flowers–buried safely under his floorboards) to attacks and round-ups during the Cultural Revolution. His books were burned and he was thrown in prison.

Times are way better now. He treats visitors from everywhere for donations, and locals for free. We went initially hoping to find something for altitude sickness. We were welcomed into his cluttered home office, attached to a storage room with big jugs of powdered herbs, roots, and mountain flowers. He sat David down and began a consultation concerning his habits, aches and pains, and lifestyle and well-being.

Dr. Ho's herbal medicine storeroom

David would prefer to start this blog post this way:

“What I love is, in Baisha (Dr. Ho’s village, part of Lijiang), among innumerable Buddhas, shawls, tablecloths, time pieces, wandering dogs and free-range chickens, there is but one Dr. Ho. Perhaps 2 — his son, who is practicing to replace him. Though not anytime soon. The post has to give a sense of the stupid souvenirs. The dumb-ass stuff. And also that Dr. Ho has become part of the whole tourist trade.
That should be the beginning.” (David says).

“And include Tibetans throwing fireworks, not for the New Year but to get people away from the stalls of their competition. Write about the cobblestones, the dustiness of it, the bright sun, & almost overlooking Dr. Ho. And the woman before us who seemed to have a good consultation. And say that if you can’t afford to visit him for a consultation, you can reach him online for his teas (and the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Chinese Herbal Medicine Clinic) at jdsmchmcl@yahoo.com.cn.”

David continues: “He asked about my work, and detected from feeling my pulse that I had lower back problems and neck problems. He asked about my prostate and wondered if I had hemorrhoids (no). His check-up agreed with my known problems. He noted that unlike many Americans, I wasn’t obese. He checked alternating wrists 3 or 4 times and said my qi was pretty good. His skin was baby soft. He attributed it to his Healthy Tea, which he gave me wrapped in paper.”

"Healthy Tea"

“The donation we made was about $30, about the same as my co-payment in the U.S., and I got more face-time and bedside manner. The tea’s herbal mustiness reminds me of every health food shop I’ve ever been in. My qi may be balanced, but I got the sense he was going to outlive me.”

(Now 90, Dr. Ho is prepared to pass the baton to his son, Dr. Ho II, who chatted us up at the clinic. He said the Mayo Clinic has correspondence with Ho regarding a leukemia case.)

This story has several layers.

Unlike our David, Bruce Chatwin didn’t visit Dr. Ho for a medical consultation, but to learn about Ho’s teacher, Joseph Rock, an eccentric Austrian-American self-taught botanist who lived in Lijiang, funded by the National Geographic Society, 1920s-’40s, cataloging wild plants and traveling colonial-mandarin style with caravans of servants. Rock’s National Geographic articles inspired readers far from China, like the author of Lost Horizons — (who never left London). It coined the term Shangri La (probably a corruption of Shambhala, the mythical Tantric heaven-on-earth).

Naxi dance for donations

Ho’s mountain, and Lijiang (spelled “Li Chiang”) also turn up in Ezra Pound’s Cantos:

And over Li Chiang, the snow range is turquoise Rock’s world that he saved us for memory a thin trace in high air
Canto CXIII

Herbs of Lijiang

This northwest part of Yunan province — China’s ‘wild’ southwest, bordering Burma–is called “remote but accessible” (and Lijiang is “the best preserved ancient town in China”).

Lijiang canal

Lijiang cafe

A major road will soon cut through (we saw massive construction). The three vast gorges that rivers carved here, at the edge of the Tibetan plateau–the mighty Mekong, Yangtze and the Nu–are twice the depth (on average) of the Grand Canyon. (In the pic, we’re hiking a popular route on the Yangtze, Tiger Leaping Gorge.) The highest mountains exceed 20,000′. It can’t be a surprise that species, that traditional medicines, thrive here which exist nowhere else on earth.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Corn drying, Baisha

I wrote earlier, from Sichuan nextdoor, that this area’s a “biodiversity hotspot“. There are rare mammals — leopards (but the ones for sale are only dyed dog skins). And separated by the peaks and river valleys, a dozen unrelated ethnic groups like the Naxi still speaking so many different languages, still wearing traditional clothing. Although the women dancing in the picture above were doing it for tourist donations. Several Naxi orchestras perform ancient music for tourists, as well.

Naxi Orchestra

“Uneasy symbiosis” ? Our tourist presence helps preserve the old cultures, deeply embedded in this astonishing landscape, which might otherwise disappear as young people move to cities. Logging caused massive flooding, so when it was banned, tourism became the biggest game in town. During Lunar New Year week, millions of newly middle-class Chinese families were out enjoying tourism just like us. (I kept thinking, it’s not their fault they are so numerous, that wherever they flock, and like us they go where it’s beautiful and culturally rich, that it becomes a swarm…a sea of humanity…a crush…a horde.)

Blissfully empty alley

David says he doesn’t mind letting me end things. Here: I hope the evolution our tourism inspires is as balanced — at the very least — as David’s qi.

FINALLY The British Curriculum

Crossing Yulong River, New Years


By 肯尼 Kenny

Ni hao.

Guess who? The British Curriclum is finally back!

So at school we are part of an Asian school league, FOBISSEA: Federation of British International Schools in South East Asia. And this year there will be a sports day for this. Not sports day, but sports week.

You will have to compete in All sports and here are the sports: soccer, basketball, swimming, track & field. But the thing is, they were selecting 12 boys from years 7 & 8. And the best part is, I made it!!!!!!!!!! In 2 months I will fly to Shanghai to compete aganst schools from Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei and Seoul. Wow that sure beats town soccer!

So anyhow, can you please comment to this: What do think when you hear the word China?

This is what I thought before I came to China: The Great Wall, bad air, corrupt government, over populated, Communist, and tough schools. but now I think of China a whole lot differently: has deserts, destroying lots of old arcitexture, beaches, eco tourism, capitalist, severe loss of forests, farming in Ghana, has 150 cities with over 1 million people, good cheap food.

But what I want to know is, what do you think of when you hear ‘China’?

A house from the Qing Dynasty time

Hydropower in Tibet: Dams & Democracy


Driving to Garze (Tibetan autonomous prefecture) over Christmas, for hours each day we passed sawn-off mountains, rock-clogged rivers, half-submerged trees and roads that disappeared into water.

Dams being built.

China is looking here, to Western Sichuan on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, where dozens of rushing tributaries of the upper Yangze surge down canyons’ steep vertical rises, for energy. The Dadu River, which we drove along for two days, is said to have 50% more hydropower potential (“exploitable installed capacities”) than the Three Gorges. Reports say there will be 22 hydroelectric power plants along the Dadu, creating flood zones, requiring the removal of something like 100,000 people from valley to high ground. One Chinese environmental group reports that no branch rivers will remain natural, but will become “cascade reservoirs.” No one knows the ecological outcome of such fundamental changes to hydrological cycles, river connectivity and dynamics.


But here’s one idea, from Fan Xiao, chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration: deadly earthquakes. He says it’s possible dam building caused the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, the one that killed about 70,000, many of them children.
We were heading to Danba, a central town whose satellite villages perch on mountains, where the Dadu crisscrosses 131 other streams and rivers, apparently draining an area of 3,000 square miles. It was an ever-higher drive. Below Danba, we stopped to skim stones in the Dadu; above, to wash in hot springs (geothermal development is likely here). Dam building was everywhere. The car crawled on rutted dirt tracks past roadblocks, mountains of gravel, workers’ prefab housing, giant dust clouds. Because of the long string of dams and power stations, in some places, articles say, the loss of vegetation qualifies as “desertification.” They’ve covered cliffs above the river with a sort of cement (I think) to hold back mud and landslides. A scientific report dryly notes the area’s “partially-destroyed appearance.”


The river’s steep descent in places creates great force, bending and surging through canyons. Nearby is one of China’s two remaining virgin forests. Hydropower is “greener” than the choking black smoke of coal-fired plants. If you buy a “carbon offset” from a broker, it is investing in hydropower on the Dadu. True, there’s no coal burned. But it takes tons of steel, water, and fuel to build 2 dozen hydroelectric dams here.

Villages go under, too. And more. This eastern ‘wall’ of the Tibetan plateau (including the Hengduan mountain range, with peaks reaching about 20,000’) is “a biodiversity hotspot” (with its very own Harvard monitoring project) Wild pandas live in nature reserves here. The Dadu, the upper Yangtze region, is noteworthy for a “rare gene pool”– 342 kinds of herbaceous plants, 57 kinds of woody plants, 233 different species just in Danba, according to a recent scientific survey. Spruces, firs, hemlocks, birches, rare yew and ebony, apples, pears, walnuts, Eucommia (rubber). It’s rich in medicinal plants (227 kinds, the census found) and dozens of wild edible and medicinal fungi (matsutake, morel, yellow wire fungus, tree-ear mushrooms). Likewise, it has many rare animals, not just pandas. The Asiatic black bear, and primates like the Tibetan macaque; more than 60 protected animals.

We also passed through Tianquan, another town along the way where, I read, several generators have been built inside a nature reserve.

There’s a trade-off, with generating needed energy. Infrastructure is for the greater good. You will devastate some land, some species, some livelihoods. Local input may be ignored in the U.S., too. But from what I can tell, China, with rule-of-law and regulatory problems, with a centralized regime and yet many overlapping bureaucracies, where the rural poor have little power, the situation is much worse.

Early on driving up one of many canyons, we stopped for lunch in Luding, where tall buildings crowd the river in a steep valley. The dam there, under construction, was shut down for a while for failing an inspection. Critics say it exemplifies the power stations’ lack of integrated planning, operation, and management. That so many different agents are involved, without coordination, may help explain the “over-exploitation” – why there are too many dams, when prominent scientists say hydroelectric construction should be scattered and small-scale, not concentrated in a single river basin.
The state-owned Dadu Hydropower Development Co., Ltd., which expanded to take on the dam-building, calls it ‘the enclosing of water resources. Its corporate website explains it tapped other companies (China Datang Cooperation, China Huadian Cooperation, Zhongxu Investment Co.) to “exploit several new sections” of cascade power stations. We hit new company boundaries every few hours, marked by gates of steel poles and flapping flags.

Up until now the area was well-preserved because it was remote and transportation impractical. “The construction of many hydroelectric power stations in [eastern Tibet and western Sichuan] represents a terrible ecological disaster,” says The Decade River Project, a group of concerned scientists and citizens.

“If construction plans are followed… hardly any the species of fish found in the river will be able to survive.” That’s because reservoirs storing water along the way alter “the flow pattern, velocity, and temperature of the river. Fish can not adapt.” Fan is chief engineer at the Sichuan Bureau of Geology and Mineral Exploration. Fan was the first geologist to suspect that Sichuan’s Wenchuan earthquake (the massive 7.9 earthquake of May 2008 that killed almost 70,000 people) was linked with to dam-building and reservoirs, particularly the Zipingpu hydroelectric station. It’s not hydropower that’s unacceptable, he says, but this pattern of over-development.

At the Sichuan Provincial Research Academy of Environmental Sciences, Zhang Qiujin, Director of the Ecology Institute, agrees that the hydropower construction here will likely completely ruin aquatic and dry-land ecological systems–the whole riverside area’s natural environment.

Those are big names, I think.

There’s often talk about “reform” in China. When you start looking at hydropower, you hear the term “Reforming water governance.” Quickly, the focus becomes, at least for me: Dissent. Local voices, heeding scientific experts outside state-owned companies, & hearing citizens pursuing their rightful interests. The Tibetan woman whose home we stayed in, near Danba, said the destruction would take a long time to heal.

Look at dams here and the path leads, at least for me, back to the question of the government’s fear of change–fear of social instability.

Tsinghua University sociologist Guo Yuhua, a dam expert, also writes about China’s “unbalanced interests”–the lack of justice for minorities in the face of such a gigantic national infrastructure program. Reformed governance, stronger rights protection for dissenting citizens, would be powerful forces for social stability in China, not destabilizers, as China pursues energy development with dwindling arable land, clean air, water, and food. So says Guo. They would ease, not worsen, today’s conflicts and tensions.

“The greatest error in current thinking and models about maintaining stability,” Guo says, “is to put the interests of people and social stability on opposite sides.”

It’s something to ponder, as I recall how every few hours we passed under a new gate of steel poles draped with tenting and flags, flapping to announce the new firm responsible for that stretch of dam construction, & heralding the bright future with slogans in Chinese such as, “Build a harmonious society with hydropower,” with mountains razed above, the river diverted below and debris — scrap stone, waste sand, disintegrating boulders – all around..